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Drug overdoses outpace traffic fatalities for first time in Va.

WASHINGTON — For the first time, more Virginians are dying from opioid overdoses than vehicle crashes as newly released data finds drug overdoses are rising at an alarming rate.

Last year, 728 people died in Virginia from heroin or prescription opioid drug overdoses, according to the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The same year, there were 700 traffic fatalities, the lowest number in a decade, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

While highway deaths drop, opioid overdose deaths have continued to rise during the past two decades. And opiate-related deaths are up 57 percent in just the past five years.

In Virginia, the highway death toll in 2013 was 741 compared with 661 from drugs. In 2009, there were 750 traffic fatalities compared with 504 deaths from heroin and opioids, according to The Associated Press.

“This heroin and prescription drug epidemic is a public health issue, a public safety and law enforcement issue, and most importantly, it’s a family issue. The rising and tragic death toll adds a dose of reality and a sense of urgency to our efforts and those of our local, state and federal partners,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a written statement.

Herring highlighted recent victories in combating overdose deaths including breaking up what is thought to be the largest heroin trafficking operation in the Hampton Roads region.

During the past year, investigators have worked cases involving a total of 95 kilograms of heroin, worth about $19 million. Eight drug dealers and traffickers have been sentenced and 16 others await sentencing.

He credits that success to new partnerships among local, state and federal agencies. In 2014, Virginia lawmakers approved a series of bills aimed at tackling the heroin epidemic, including a statewide task force.

In July, a new law took effect that makes it easier for anyone to obtain naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

Herring says he’s proud of the progress the state has made and in the next legislative session, he will support bills aimed at holding drug dealers accountable for overdose deaths.

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